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Ask most people what makes quality music, and inevitably they reply that it’s the speakers. I’m not sure whether that was ever true, or if the speakers were simply one of the few pieces of hardware that users could choose, but it’s definitely not the case in this age of digital music.

Speakers do matter, of course. However, thanks to printed circuits, selecting them is no longer a matter of the larger the better. Today, you can get the same sound from a eight centimeter high wireless speaker that you once needed a seventy-five centimeter wired speaker for. And, although you still can’t go astray with traditional quality brands such as Bose, other brands like Logitech’s UE (Ultimate Ears) are also worth considering.

If you use headphones or ear buds, the headphone amplifier on your music player takes the place of speakers. For example, Fiio, an up and coming Chinese maker of audio equipment makes several different amplifiers for different listening preferences to accompany its top of the line music player. The cables used to connect headphones or ear buds can also make a difference, with those made from metals like titanium being at the high end.

Then there is the digital file. A 32 bit file is going to capture more nuances than an 8 bit one, and a 192K sample rate more than a 42K one, regardless of what hardware you play them back on. Format also matters, with FLAC being preferred by many audiophiles because of its advanced capabilities.

Still another consideration is the DAC (Digital to Analog Converter), which turns the digital file into sound. Unlike with speakers, with DACs, size still matters – a music player the length of your thumb does not have room for a first-rate DAC, which currently requires a device about the size of a cell phone. Even so, modern DACs deliver quality that was once only available with several bulky boxes many times their weight.

All these considerations are often bundled for you. Download sites, for example, often offer low quality files in MP3 formats, with occasional special offers of files with a higher sampling format. Similarly, headphone amplifiers and DACs are usually not compatible with other brands, or even other formats, although headphones, ear buds, and cables generally are.

If you are ripping your own digital music or selecting a music player and its accessories, take into account where you will play music. An apartment dweller will have little use for Fiio’s A5 headphone amplifier, because they are unlikely to be playing music loud enough to appreciate its ability to keep the bass from distorting at high volumes. Instead, the less specialized A3 headphone amplifier is probably a more reasonable choice. Similarly, if you want music for riding the bus, even with noise-canceling headphone, you will probably have enough external noise that you can’t appreciate a 32bit FLAC file, and it will simply take up extra storage space.

Sorting through all these considerations can be complex. All the same, don’t just stop with the speakers or headphones when you are considering how to play your music. Today,  focusing on the speakers is only part of what you need to consider.

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One night when I was 14, I was doing my homework at the desk in the downstairs basement of my parents’ house. My transistor radio was playing, but I wasn’t paying close attention. The radio station was playing far too much Chicago and Elton John, for my liking, and not nearly enough Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan.

Suddenly, guitars kicked in, and a woman started singing, her voice mildly eerie and like no vocal performance I had ever heard, “True Thomas sat on Huntleigh bank / When he espied a lady may.” I strained for the words for a few stanzas, and then a rock beat struck up in utter contrast, “Harp and carp, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer…”

At the time, I had never heard of Thomas of Ercildoune, aka Thomas the Rhymer, the Scottish prophet who met the Queen of Elfland and was carried off to her realm for seven years. I hadn’t even heard of Steeleye Span. But the arrangement and the words haunted me, and eventually – this being pre-Internet – I realized what I was hearing was a modern version of a seven hundred year old song.

This continuity of culture fascinated me. Folk purists claimed to be outraged by Steeleye Span’s efforts in this direction, but as am adolescent raised on stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood who was trying to reconcile these interests with modern politics, I was entranced. I became a lifelong fan of Steeleye Span, and to this day, songs that modernize old songs are among my favorites.

I remember, for example, just before twilight at the Vancouver Folk Festival hearing Oysterband doing a rocked up version of “Hal-an-tow,” the centuries old Morris dance. I played it for Paul Zimmer, one of the SCA founders, a few weeks later, and I remember him doubling over, his laughter ringing out like a cannon shot when he heard the refrain, “Summer is a-coming in / And winter’s gone away.” A harpist from Denver condemned it as sacrilege and an affront to her ears, which only made Paul and I laugh harder.

Years later, Oysterband, in its “Ragged Kingdom” collaboration with June Tabor, would do much the same with “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” converting the conversation between Napoleon’s son and widow about the dangers of England from a slow harp arrangementd into a magic altogether quicker and more electrified. Again it was condemned by the purists, and overwhelmed the open-minded.

Over the years, there have been other updated songs that have enticed me, among them: Pete Morton’s acapella, punk-tinged version of “Tam Lin,” Tom Lewis’s setting of Rudyard Kipling poems to music, and Loreena McKennitt’s similar treatments of “The Lady of Shallot,” “The Stolen Child” and “The Highwayman.” There was even the Corries’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of how they were restoring “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to its original Scottish form – which was really the story of a modern bar fight described as a Western brawl.

What all these songs have in common is the idea that the past is still alive, and still worth knowing. I am very far from a conservative, but in our era of throwaway culture, something pleases me about this assumption.

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The last few years of Trish’s life, she was on disability, and increasingly bedridden. Although I work from home, her situation caused few problems, except for one thing – she wanted to play music, and music — at least with words — distracts me when I write. As a compromise, I bought her a music player, and soon bought one for myself to use when I was on the bus or Skytrain. The only problem was, no player of the time could hold more than about one-fifth of nine hundred albums. So an ambition was born: to have all our music digitized and accessible from a single, portable source.

For the first decade of the millennium, the goal was barely possible. For a while, I thought of using a dedicated netbook, but that was not as convenient as a music player.

More importantly, the goal faced several problems. I had not thrown out any music I had bought since high school, and I am one of those who still buys music as a way of supporting artists I admire. For years, concerts and the Vancouver Folk Festival had been a major form of socialization for us, and over the years we had accumulated an unlikely collection of vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs. Our stereo needed four components just so we play it all. In order to access them from one device, I would need to digitize all my albums. In addition, I would need to divide the albums into tracks to take full advantage of them.

However, digitizing is easier to talk about than to do. A CD can be ripped in about five minutes, but records and cassettes have to be recorded while playing, and divided into tracks manually. The process is tedious, so after quickly digitizing the CDs, I tackled the records and cassettes in starts and stops. In fact, I don’t expect to finish it until near the end of 2017, partly because I changed my mind partway through and decided that, for many artists, I wanted high quality sound, not the standard MP3 file size – even though, because I was using the Ogg Vorbis format, my files were higher quality than most of the ones I could find online.

The second obstacle is that the memory for music players – that is, the size of micro SD cards – increased slowly. Trish had been two years dead before about two-thirds of our music could fit on a micro SD card, and that meant swapping music out several times a week since I wanted variety.

The problem was finally solved when micro SD cards with 128 megabytes were released a couple of years ago, but most music players were not equipped to handle the files that cards of this size could hold. Many had a limit to their list of tracks that was far below the size of the cards. The only way to view all my files was to use the view of the memory, and that meant there was no way to play them in the order they appeared on the album. Most of the time, I listen to music by album, on the grounds that how musicians arrange albums is part of the experience they want their audience to have, so this was a problem.

This last barrier fell when I needed to replace my music player, and accidentally discovered the Fiio line of music players – or, more accurately, of portable stereos. When I bought the entry level X1 in October 2016, it had solved this final problem while producing sound that was far superior to that of other music players. The X1 gave me a music player to use outside the townhouse, but I soon decided that I wanted the top of the line X7 for use around the home. The X7 had even better sound than the X1, solved all my problems, and was even set up to stream music from the Internet when WiFi was turned on.

Accordingly, after several weeks of resisting the temptation, I bought an X7 as a Christmas present for myself. My biggest problem now is to decide whether to stay with a single Bluetooth speaker, or to buy at least one more. I may just carry the speaker with me into the kitchen or living room so that I can position it to give me the best sound.

I only wish Trish could have heard this solution. Being of the same generation as I am, she would be amazed at a music system that weighed about 1200 grams and could be held in one hand. Better still, she would have loved having all our music in one source as much as I do.

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I have spent the last few months in the grip of an enthusiasm. At my age, I am proud I can still have an enthusiasm, because it proves that I have kept a youthful engagement with the world well into middle-age, but it is one I would have thought unlikely when I was a boy. It is, of all things, an enthusiasm for the Fiio line of music players – or, as I prefer to think of them, portable stereos.

I learned about music the hard way, by myself, with lots of false leads and blind alleys. My family is not musical, and my elementary school music teacher, who wanted to be a professional musician, was only interested in encouraging students who had already taken music lessons. When the transfer to high school allowed me drop music, I did so without hesitation. The only reason I was even attempting to play the trombone was that it could be rented to own cheaply.

I started high school so profoundly ignorant that I might have grown up to be a life-long hater of music. I definitely took years to develop any knowledge; I was in my twenties, for example, before I could tell the difference between a sharp and a flat, and when I learned, I was profoundly excited.

Yet free from the humiliation of the band, I started discovering music first. As a would-be writer, I gravitated naturally to songwriters: first Simon and Garfunkel, and later Bob Dylan. Other explorations, such as the work of all the Beatles after the band broke up, including Yoko Ono, did not last, being less fortunate.

Still, by the time I started university, I was a compulsive music listener. I developed a taste for folk rock, and I still remember being down in the basement bedroom in my parents’ house, listening to Steeleye Span singing “Thomas the Rhymer” on my cheap transistor, absolutely delighted that a song seven hundred years old had been transformed into a modern hit.

Throughout my marriage, the Vancouver Folk Festival and later the Rogue Folk Club were the main part of our socializing. I can still remember the first time I heard Stan Rogers, Loreena McKennitt and Oysterband, and over the years we bought hundreds of records, cassettes and CDs (people bought albums in my youth, and I still do, as a way of supporting artists I appreciate). Usually at the folk festival we bought cassettes, because they were less likely to warp in the summer sun.

Over the last seven years, I have been slowing digitalizing my music collection. Usually, I made files of medium quality, reasoning that, since I would often be listening to the digital files on public transit, high quality files would be largely wasted on me. I looked forward to the day when all my music would be available from the same source, envisioning first a dedicated laptop and later a music player with enough memory to hold 12,000 tracks or so.

As SD micro cards became larger, I was nearing that goal when my Sansa Fuze music player needed to be replaced. I bought a Sansa Clip, but the manufacturer had lapsed from their former standards. My new player especially seemed to dislike my Ogg Vorbis files, refusing to recognize some and only playing others at a whisper.

According to my research, the Fiio X1 should perform better. I had noticed it when searching for a new player, but it seemed unusually large and clunky. I especially disliked the arrangement of four buttons at the corners of the scroll wheel – an example of poor design if there ever was one. But if it could let me play my files in the way I wanted, I was prepared to put up with the appearance. I did wonder, though, if the X1 would burst the seams of my pocket.

My reluctance vanished the first time I tried the X1. Even my average quality files sounded better on it. As for the high quality ones – have you heard the expression “wall of sound”? It refers to arrangements full of orchestration, each instrument interacting with the others in complex and interesting ways. That was what I heard on the X1. I even heard subtleties I had never heard on music players from other manufacturers.

That was when I realized why Fiio products were so much larger than other music players. They weren’t just music players. They were portable stereos, and, as far as miniaturization has progressed, their DAC (Digital Analog Converters) and headphone amplifiers could still only be made so small. The Fiio product line did not consist of oversized music players, but stereo systems that were as small as our current technology allowed.

As a lover of both excellence and music, I bored everyone in hearing about this discovery. Before long, I began planning to re-record some of my digitized music with the highest quality possible. I also decided I wanted an X7, Fiio’s top of the line product, for use at home. Unfortunately, my editors were slow in paying at the time, and I knew I had to wait.

Finally, in the last week before Christmas, payments started rolling in. One morning, I was just debating whether I could afford an X7 when I received a cheque for almost exactly the amount I needed.

This, I told myself, was obviously kismet. Within moments, I had placed my order. Miraculously, in the middle of the holiday season, it arrived the next day.

I had read the universally enthusiastic reviews of the X7, so I knew what to expect. Still, having been impressed already by the X1, I doubted there was much room for any improvement.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. As superior as the X1 was to music players from other manufacturers, so the X7 was to the X1. The wall of sound had become a tsunami, and I have happily spent the last few days rediscovering my music. Once or twice, I have even mistaken a detail I could only detect on the X7 for a sound behind me or in the next room.

This was not just music; this was the kind of revelation that produces fanatics. The interface, the construction, the sound and everything else about the X7 has a quiet quality that I both respect and enjoy immensely.

I already listen regularly to music, but already I suspect I will be listening to a lot more. It sounds like advertising hype, but I really do feel like I have rediscovered music — including many old favorites — all over again because of my purchases.

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I remember several memorable musical moments in my life. There was the Vancouver Folk Festival where I first heard Stan Rogers singing “The Witch of the Westmoreland” against the reflection of the sunset on the eastern clouds, and the first time Spirit of the West played the Commodore, when our table on the sprung dance floor was bouncing up and down. I remember, too, hearing Loreena McKennitt at the Mythopoeic Conference I helped organized, her voice floating through the hall while the crowd was open-mouthed and silent. But so far the greatest was hearing June Tabor and OysterBand doing their sendup cover of The Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit.

The venue was the pub on the old Expo 86 grounds. I forget what it was being called at the time; several incarnations came and went before the fact that the space wasn’t commercially viable became obvious. It was a big space, and too far from the beaten path to attract many people.

The exception was the night that OysterBand and June Tabor performed, and you could see that the waiters were not happy with the crowd. It was a crowd that had come to listen, not to buy drinks, no matter how hard the waiters tried. I don’t know about anyone else, but after about the eighth invitation to buy another drink, Trish and I took to ignoring the waiters’ unsubtle persistence, except to turn away and face the stage more squarely.

If you have heard OysterBand live, it goes without saying that the set started fast and continued with almost perfect orchestration, the slow and softer numbers coming at exactly the right places to provide a change from the faster and harder ones. If you have heard June Tabor in any medium, it also goes without saying that her voice could make you world-weary or arouse tears just by the way she emphasized the right word. As usual, her voice with its faintly Northern accent sounded like that of a survivor, tough and proud and knowing everything there is to know about suffering.

We wished the set would never end, but eventually it did end. A long pause followed, and just as the last chances of an encore seemed to disappear, the lights turned psychedelic. Clouds of dry-ice started to obscure the stage, and June Tabor could be seen in a leather mini-skirt, striking a pose like the young Grace Slick, although she was forty-five at the time. She looked stunning – not just beautiful or sexy, although she had something of both, but someone both totally in command of the audience, yet simultaneously camping it up and not wanting anyone to take her completely seriously.

A few people in the audience took up her unspoken invitation and laughed. A few of us recognized the opening strains of “White Rabbit.” Like me, most of them probably expected a few notes, a reference like other bands at the time might make to “Stairway to Heaven” before segueing into another song altogether.

But after a few bars, the members of OysterBand appear to one side of Tabor, and the light show began to imitate that of the video in which The Airplane performed “White Rabbit” on The Smothers Brothers’ show. Slowly, Tabor began singing the first two lines of the song, “One pill makes you smaller / And one pill makes you small.” At the end of the lines, you could hear her accent.

By the third line, Tabor was no longer camping, but singing with exactly the suppressed passion of Grace Slick, almost sounding like Slick except for the burr in her voice.

The difference was that, while Slick sounds ambiguous on “White Rabbit,” Tabor sounded angry. Simply by emphasizing “ones,” she made the line, “And the ones that mother gives you” sound angry and contemptuous. In a single word, she seemed to dismiss convention

The contempt continued in the next line. Under Tabor’s phrasing, “go ask Alice” became bitterly sarcastic and so did the very idea that Alice could tell anyone anything “when she’s ten feet tall.” Just by emphasizing “chasing,” she conveyed the idea that “chasing rabbits” was a ludicrous pastime. Listening, I felt she was giving me personally an extensive tongue-lashing, listing my shortcomings one by one, but I was fascinated and could only lean forward to listen more closely.

The men on the chessboard and the white queen were sung about with a voice of someone who had seen them and knew they were inevitable and tiresome. In these verses, her phrasing sounded much like Slick’s. But when Tabor reached what for Slick was the end of the song – the repetition of the Dormouse’s advice to “Feed your head” – Tabor did not invite the listeners to turn on, as Slick did. Instead, she seemed to be advising us to get smart and learn from the experience.

This impression was reinforced by the fact that she didn’t end the song there. Rather, after an instrumental, she returned to the first verse, singing the words in a flat voice and letting the pause at the end of the last line trail off into silence.

I suppose you could interpret Tabor’s treatment of the song as anti-drug. However, it didn’t come across as so specific. Instead, she sounded like someone who had rushed into foolish things of all sorts warning others neither to imitate her nor expect anything help from the orthodox.

But however you interpret Tabor’s phrasing, it struck the audience like a fist to the solar plexus. When it ended, the audience was silence for a beat. Then everyone spontaneously leaped to their feet in one of the few non-calculated standing ovations I have seen, and you couldn’t talk for the applause.

Personally, I was glad to fall back into my seat. After listening to that one song, I felt as though I had run a marathon with a deflated lung. Like many other members of the audience, I lingered, playing with my drink until we felt strong enough to leave. Neither of us could express what we had seen with more than a half-articulate, “Wow!” express what we had seen, but we knew it had been something profound and memorable — something that we felt privileged to witness.

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In these days of iTunes, albums are probably obsolete. However, I still prefer to listen by albums, knowing how much care many musicians take to arrange material.

I have some thousand albums, all of which I’m slowly digitalizing while hardware like USB cassette players still exist to make the task easy. Choosing one over another is in many ways meaningless, since my favorites can differ depending on my mood and whatever song is running through my head when I wake up in the morning. However, if I had to choose my general favorites, in no particular order, the list would look something like this:

  • Breakfast in Bedlam by Malcolm’s Interview: Also known as “God’s Little Monkeys,” Malcolm’s Interview was a short-lived punk band in England during the 1980s. Hard-driving lyrics, strong song-writing, and the occasional reinterpretation of folk standards make this first album worth hunting down if you weren’t around when it was released.
  • Celtic Hotel by Battlefield Band: Anything by Battlefield Band in its innumerable incarnations is worth hear. But in this album, the lineup included songwriter Brian McNeill, and the group soars above its usual lofty standards. Standouts include “The Roving Dies Hard,” a romantic overview of Scottish history,“Seacoalers,” a bitterly defiant soliloquy about an independent beachcomber, and a cover of Sting’s “We Work the Black Seam.”
  • Titanic Days by Kirsty MacColl: Dubbed MacColl’s divorce album, this album is full of breakup angst, defiance, female fantasy, and even a chilling look into the mind of a serial killer, all backed up by MacColl’s characteristic wall of sound. Listen to this album, and you’ll understand why she was once described as “the Dorothy Parker of pop.”
  • Waiting for Bonaparte by The Men They Couldn’t Hang: Using a name that The Pogues discarded, TMTCH sound in this album like a Mersey-side rock band with a historical perspective and a political conscience. Especially strong numbers include “The Crest,” a father’s last words to his son about the family tradition, and “The Colors,” an account of the great English naval mutiny at the turn of the 19th century.
  • Hat Trick by the Mollys: Tex-Mex punk folk sounds like it should be a disaster. Somehow, the Mollys made the combination work, combining original songs that sound like their lyrics were written by a female Sean McGowan with cheeky re-working of folk standards like “All Around My Hat” and “Myrshkin Derkin.”
  • Small Rebellions by James Keelaghan: James Keelaghan is one of Canada’s major song writers. This album is a mixture of unionism (“Hillcrest Mine” and “Small Rebellions,” Canadian history (“Red River Rising,” and “Rebecca’s Song” local patriotism (“Gladys Ridge”), humor (“Departure Bay”) and quiet lyricism (“Country Fair”) – something for anyone who prefers intelligent lyrics with their music.
  • Love, Loneliness and Laundry by Leon Rosselson and Roy Bailey: England’s answer to Tom Lehrer, Leon Rosselson also has a quieter, if no less satirical side. He is joined here by the rich voice of Roy Bailey, and occasionally feminist folk singer Frankie Armstrong. Warning: “Standup for Judas” should not be played if you have invited Christian friends over. The same goes for “Abezier Coppe.”
  • Mothers, Daughters, Wives by Judy Small. Australian’s premier feminist folk singer in the 1990s, Small has one of the most expressive voices I have ever heard. The title song is a description of the lives of her mother’s generation and the roles available to them, so moving that it could probably reduce the most confirmed misogynist in the world into tears at the waste.
  • Angel Tiger by June Tabor: June Tabor’s voice sounds like that of a survivor, sad and depressed, but still struggling, with one of the most expressive voices ever to come out of England. This album includes her gut-wrenching version of “Hard Love,” a story of hard-won maturity, and “All This Wasted Beauty,” the song that Elvis Costello wrote for her voice. Expect to be literally moved to tears.
  • Elemental by Loreena McKennitt: With her harp and an expressive voice that can glide effortlessly up and down the octaves, Loreena McKennit is not heard so much as experienced. This is her first album, a collection of folk standards plus an arrangement of W. B. Yeat’s “Stolen Child” that has to be heard to be believed.
  • The Shouting End of Life by OysterBand: This album catches OysterBand in its electric rock phase. Opening with the pro-environmental “We’ll Be There,” the album waxes lyrical in “By Northern Light” and “Long Dark Street,” switches into comedy with “Don’t Slit Your Wrists for Me,” and ends a rock version of Leon Rosselson’s anthem, “The World Turned Upside Down.”
  • Frivolous Love by Pete Morton: With a punk voice but a quiet sound, Morton specializes in enigmatic but moving lyrics, such as “The Sloth and the Greed” and “The Backward King.” The album also includes one of the best ever recordings of “Tamlyn.”
  • Memento: The Best of Maddy Prior by Maddy Prior: Frequently the lead singer for Steeleye Span and the occasional collaborator of June Tabor, Prior is one of folk rock’s best-known vocalists. This album covers a few folk standards, as well as Prior’s own considerable song-writing skills, which are on display in such numbers as “Commit the Crime” and “Face to Face,” as well as “Rose” and “Alex,” her odes to her children. But by far the most interesting song on the album is “The Sovereign Prince,” which contrasts Elizabeth I with the frivolous English girls who live in the world that she created.
  • The Texas Campfire Takes by Michelle Shocked: While I’m dismayed by Shock’s recent anti-gay sentiments, I have to admit she still writes effective music. This album is her version of the bootleg album that launched her career without her permision, The Texas Campfire Tapes, after she had regained the rights. It contains both the originally released songs and the unedited versions she rightly prefers.
  • Growl by Ray Wylie Hubbard: To his frequent regret, Hubbard is best-known for the outlaw country hit, “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers.” However, this album shows Hubbard is more complicated than that old hit would suggest, offering a unique combination of blues and rock, and songs that are vignettes of the American South that could have come from the pages of a William Faulkner novel.
  • Red Roses for Me by the Pogues: This early album shows The Pogues at their best. Their musicianship is displayed in instrumentals like “The Battle of Brisbane” and “Dingle Regatta,” and the strength of their lyrics in “Boys from County Hell” and “Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go.” The Pogues even take the time to cover Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilida” and fellow Irish rakehell Brendan Behan’s “The Old Triangle.”
  • From Fresh Water by Stan Rogers: Stan Rogers never released an album that was uninteresting, but this is by far his strongest. Part of his Canadian region recordings, it focuses on songs about Ontario. As might be expected from Rogers, many of the songs are about ships on the Great Lakes, including “White Squall” and “Lock Keeper.” Others are about Canadian history, such as “McDonnel on the Heights” and “The Nancy.” Still others are about the dreams of ordinary Canadians, including “Flying,” which is probably the only memorable song ever written by hockey.
  • Amnesia by Richard Thompson: The English guitar legend has dozens of albums to his credit, but Amnesia has a claim to being the best of them all, with all ten songs being winners. Its ballads include “Gypsy Love Song” and “Waltzing’s for Dreamers,” its had-edge material, “Yankee Go Home” and “Jerusalem on the Jukebox. It ends with“Pharoah,” a metaphorical social commentary unlike any you’re likely to have heard.
  • Singing of the Times by Tommy Sands:A peace activist in Irelands, Sands starts this album with, “There Were Roses” about The Troubles. Other songs like “Children of the Dole” and “Your Daughters and Your Sons” sound like activist anthems. However, some of his works, like “Humpty Dumpty” and “I’m Going Back on the Bicycle” display a sly sense of humor, and “Peter’s Song,” an elegy for a fiddler, is simply beautiful.
  • All Used Up by Utah Phillips: Nobody ever went to a Utah Phillips concert for his guitar playing. But if you like story telling or want to hear about the Wobblies and the great North American labor movements through their songs, this album is a great place to start.
  • Restless by Sam Weis: With her twelve string guitar and husky voice, Weis was a standard on the folk circuits of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s before she retired to small town Washington to paint abstracts. Restless show her ability to write moving, original love songs, such as “Rubicon” and “Moment to Moment,” as well as her outstanding guitar work in songs like “Train to Big Sur” and her cover of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot.”

You probably haven’t heard of most of these performers, especially if you live outside of Canada or the United Kingdom, and maybe not even then. But that’s why I list them – because if you do take the trouble to track them down, you’re unlikely to regret the effort.

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One benefit of digitalizing my music is the rediscovery of artists. Thanks to the digitalizing, I’ve tracked down at least a dozen artists and found what they’ve been doing since I first heard their music, including The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Michelle Shocked, Kirsty McColl, and Mark Graham. My latest re-discovery is Sam Weis, a twelve-string guitar player and writer of original songs from Washington State.

I don’t remember the first time I heard Weis, but it must have been at a Rogue Folk concert at the WISE Hall in East Vancouver. Possibly, I’d run across her previously at regional science fiction conventions; if not, it was someone remarkably similar. She had a vaguely punk sensibility that appealed to the front-row lesbians who seemed to attend every local folk concert in those days, and a twelve-string guitar that seemed almost too big for her and with which she could do almost anything. I especially remember the audience joining on the “Ride, ride, ride” chorus of “Til We’ve Seen It All,” and many of those around me crying at the longing expressed in the song.

At some point, we bought her Restless album, and over the years I played it often. But the CD lost its cover, and Weis seemed to be performing less, perhaps concentrating on her painting, which she also does professionally. Occasionally, I searched the Internet for her, but never found anything.

It was only last week, as I searched through my digital collection, that I realized that I had been looking for “Weiss,” adding an erroneous “s” to the end of her name. Having grabbed a clue, I located and downloaded her other three albums, and have been enjoying them for the past six days.

Finding an analogy for Sam Weis’ work isn’t easy, because it appeals in a number of different ways. Listening to her cover of “Dancing Barefoot,” I might compare her to Patti Smith with a stronger voice and better guitar work. Listening to “’55 Ford,” you might mistake her for a rocker. Her instrumental “Helix” is reminiscent of the Scottish harp duo Sileas. Another instrumental, “Train to Blue Sky” sounds like something the Allman Brothers might have recorded in their heyday, while “Breakfast with Bob” has an acoustic quietness. Philosophical pieces like “Why Not Utopia?” are reminiscent of Tori Amos in expression, while “Seven Sisters Road” suggests Michelle Shocked feeling nostalgic. Some critics have compared her to Joan Armatrading because of her probing relationship songs.

All these comparisons have a grain of insight, and none is accurate by itself, if only because Weis’ versatility is always supported by her strong guitar skills and a voice that, while ordinary in range, has a husky vibrato that suggests ambiguity and repressed emotion, making it second to very few in expression.

At times, her lyrics teeter at the edge of triteness, often as she finds herself boxed in by a scarcity of non-cliched rhymes. Such low points are especially likely to happen when she waxes philosophical in songs like “Why Not Utopia?” or “Shape of Time.” Not that such songs aren’t redeemed by the arrangements, but tackling such topics in a three or four minute song is only slightly easier than doing so on Twitter.

By contrast, Weis’ lyrics are at their height when she deals with personal emotions, whose complexities and ambiguities she expresses better than almost anyone. For instance, in “Seven Sisters Road,” she talks about youthful sessions with friends “where we invented destiny / And traded rage for poetry.”

Her lyrics are at their best when describing the intricacies of love in plain language. In “Restless Heart,” for example, she pleads, “Open up and let me come in / My lessons have been learned and I want to try again” and invites her lover to “slow dance on the back porch.” Similarly, in “Moment to Moment,” she expresses the obsessiveness of love with:

I don’t want to spend one more night
With you on my mind,
I’m going to be so tough when I pretend
I can leave this love behind.

However, my personal favorite remains “Til We’ve Seen It All.” I suppose you might argue that, in modern times, a song about cruising the highways with a lover isn’t environmentally correct. All the same, the poignancy remains despite such quibbles:

This is how I see
The golden American Dream,
Three thousand miles of asphalt,
Four wheels and a holy machine;
I’ve been chasing the illusion
Like an astronaut running down a star,
The dream to go fast, go hard,
Go now and go far.

I’m sure that the only way that any listener can fail to be moved by the longing is if they’ve completely given up their own ambitions and dreams.

None of this is to dismiss Weis’ instrumentals – just to say that I’m more qualified to discuss her words. Instrumentals like “Cosmo and Peanut” and “Helix” from her just-released album Paradox have already kept me sane while riding public transit, and I plan on them doing the same many times in the future. The fact is, all Weis’ albums have a permanent place on my music player, and I”ll happily listen to whatever other music she releases.

The only question I have is: Why isn’t this artist better known?

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